The Philadelphia Union are entering into a critical stretch of their MLS schedule this weekend, not because the coming opponents are giants or because the season is dwindling (actually, we’re still in the campaign’s first quarter). But the next four contests offer an unparalled chance to move-up in the standings and to make a statement, not only to the rest of the league but to the Union players themselves.
So far, the 2-2-2 club has had trouble scoring goals. Play in the midfield has been sloppy the last couple of weeks and the team has appeared to lose some of its early season identity as an up-and-comer. But in the second half of last Saturday’s come-from-behind 1-1 draw against Toronto at PPL, the club showed its best stretch of offensive play so far this season. The players were all in sync and exerting waves of pressure, especially after recent addition and World Cup champion Kleberson entered the match.
The Union badly needs to remember these minutes and carry that same sort of intensity into the next few contests. Looking ahead, Philadelphia actually has a whopping four straight contests against opponents they should be able to bend. It all starts on Sunday with a road meeting at DC United (5 p.m., ESPN2), the cellar-dwellers of the East who will carry a woeful 1-4-1 record onto the pitch. If you think the Union has had trouble netting the ball regularly, imagine yourself a DC fan. Had you left the room to get a soda just twice this season, you might have missed all the club’s scoring. They’ve buried only 2 goals, given up 7, and appear lost offensively. Fittingly, their only tie was a 0-0 affair (vs. New York). In another year, it might seem somewhat remarkable that they actually managed to best Real Salt Lake, but this season, the Utah club is not it’s old self with a mediocre 2-3-2 record. DC is also coming-off two straight shut-out losses.
Meanwhile, the Union continues to play decent defense with the exception of an occasional, glaring lapse that has led to a goal or two. Remove those rare mistakes and DC should be ripe for the picking. Fans certainly hope so, because a victory would set the club up well for the next three matches, a road affair with New England (another club trailing the Union in the East), followed by a tangle with the Western Conference bottom-feeder Seattle on 6abc Day at PPL Park (May 4th). Then, it’s Chicago on the road, yet another struggling club that currently sits tied with DC. Imagine what 3 or four wins would do for the team’s outlook. The Union would almost certainly vault into third place in the East and would have tons of momentum heading into the middle of the schedule.
Of course, nothing is certain in life or in soccer and the Union will probably need a little luck to put together the sort of run that looks so easy on paper. But Philadelphia can make its own luck by taking the lessons learned in the later stages of last week’s draw and applying them from the start of Sunday’s match in Washington.
GAME NOTES: It will interesting to see how Manager John Hackworth handles his roster on Sunday. Against Toronto, he started the triple threat of Conor Casey, Sebastian Le Toux and Jack McInerney up front, and inserted Kleberson late in a match the Union was losing; that’s in direct conflict with everything we had heard about how the Brazilian veteran might actually be used. So, what now? Personally, I’m in favor of the same strategy up front in DC.. The big question is whether the coaching staff feels it’s time to give Kleberson a shot at the full 90-minutes. He looked fit last week in limited action. It may be hard to resist having that sort of clever player joining the others in front of the DC net from minute-one, even if the on-loan veteran isn’t part of the team’s long-term plans. Picking-up points during this weak portion of the schedule may take precedent over continuing the development of some of the club’s younger, less-experienced midfielders.